Could cold water hold a clue to a dementia cure?

Cold water swimming may protect the brain from degenerative diseases like dementia, researchers from Cambridge University have discovered.

In a world first, a "cold-shock" protein has been found in the blood of regular winter swimmers at London's Parliament Hill Lido. 

The protein has been shown to slow the onset of dementia and even repair some of the damage it causes in mice.

Prof Giovanna Mallucci, who runs the UK Dementia Research Institute's Centre at the University of Cambridge, says the discovery could point researchers towards new drug treatments which may help hold dementia at bay.

The research - although promising - is at an early stage, but it centres on the hibernation ability that all mammals retain, which is prompted by exposure to cold.

There are already more than a million people with dementia in the UK and the total is expected to double by 2050.

Researchers are searching for new ways to treat the condition, as current options have only limited impact.

Bears and hedgehogs

Doctors have known for decades that cooling people down can - in certain circumstances - protect their brains.

People with head injuries and those who need cardiac operations are often cooled during surgery, as are babies.

What has not been so well understood was why cold has this protective effect.
The link with dementia lies in the destruction and creation of synapses - the connections between cells in the brain.

In the early stages of Alzheimer's and other neuro-degenerative diseases, these brain connections are lost.

This leads to the cascade of symptoms associated with dementia - including memory loss, confusion and mood swings - and, in time, the death of whole brain cells.
What intrigued Prof Mallucci was the fact that brain connections are lost when hibernating animals like bears, hedgehogs and bats bed down for their winter sleep.
About 20-30% of their synapses are culled as their bodies preserve precious resources for winter.

But when they awake in the spring, those connections are miraculously reformed.

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